Anthology films get no respect, if only because the vast majority of them tend to never be more than fair-to-middling. Most of them just grouped together a bunch of related stories that couldn’t be blown up to feature length. The best ones use the anthology format as a vehicle for other concerns: Bizarre was a satirical exploration (exploitation!) of the war between the sexes; The Animatrix used multiple animated segments to explore different facets of the Matrix universe that the movies couldn’t examine in depth independently.
Memories is an animated anthology film with three segments, each created by a luminary of the Japanese animation industry: Kōji Morimoto (of Mind Game and the “Beyond” segment of The Animatrix), Tensai Okamura (Wolf’s Rain) and Katsuhiro Ōtomo (Akira, Steamboy). Ōtomo created manga from which each segment was derived and wrote the second and third segments himself, while the first was penned by none other than Paranoia Agent creator Satoshi Kon. The segments are only vaguely related to each other; all are science-fiction themed, but they are more concerned with personality and possibility than graphics or hardware. That automatically makes them all the more interesting, even if the segments vary in quality.
The first segment, “Magnetic Rose” (written by Kon) is easily the best. Set in the year 2095, it opens with a space-salvage team, roughly akin to the crew in the series Planetes (which I highly recommend, by the way), but there’s also a good deal of the “truckers in space” vibe by way of Alien. One day they come across a gigantic derelict ship the size of an asteroid, apparently formed out of the wreckage of dozens of other ruined craft. When the salvage team comes on board, however, they find something inexplicable: the inside of the ship looks like an elegant rococo mansion, outfitted with robot servants that are still providing meals for the long-departed tenant: a beautiful and talented opera diva named Eva.
The deeper the salvage team goes into the ship, the more they are steeped in Eva’s past: her accomplishments, her awards, her fossilized past glory. Everything that remains, however, crumbles at the touch — like a closetful of her dresses that turn to dust as one of the men brushes his finger along their sleeves. Then they encounter something that may or may not be her ghost, and their preconceptions about what exactly they have been witnessing are all challenged profoundly. The one member of the salvage team who has a family to go back to, however, resists, with horrendous consequences. Of the three, this segment hooks most directly into the anthology’s title. All that remains of Eva is memory — as is the case with any of us when we die — but in this case, her memory hungers to have others to be with her.
Aside from being the most rewarding of the three segments, “Rose” also serves as a nice introduction to Kon’s storytelling style and many of his concerns. Almost all of his stories have been fascinated (shilling for obsessed) with the ways celebrity and fantasy affect our lives, how our public faces transform our private lives. This segment is also like an eerie thematic adjunct to Kon’s Perfect Blue, another story about a famous woman whose fame becomes horrifying and destructive, and ties at least once into Agent’s ideas about turning a blind eye to reality. The imagery in “Rose” is alternately beguiling and ghastly: one of the best moments involves a ruined piano playing itself, blood oozing out from between its keys.
“Stink Bomb”, the centerpiece episode, is the weakest of the three, partly because it doesn’t connect well with the anthology’s overriding theme, but mostly because it loses its way. A hapless young lab assistant, Nobuo, has a miserable cold he can’t shake, despite getting shots at the local clinic. His co-workers suggest he try a cold medicine that’s still being worked on, “especially since it hasn’t been diluted for sale yet.” Nobuo winds up swallowing the wrong pill: he’s taken an experimental drug that turns him into a walking chemical weapon, killing everyone who catches even a whiff of him. The setup is actually pretty clever, since the truth of what’s going on is concealed for as long as possible. It’s also played more for black comedy and satire than as a serious story; I think it’s meant at least in part to be a mockery of bungling and incompetence in the military and its affiliated industries. It also invokes Akira in more than just its look-and-feel: it’s features, however peripherally, someone whose power is directly linked to their emotional state.
Unfortunately, the second half the story makes a terrible mistake: it buries the satirical elements in the story in favor of taking its plot all the more seriously. A shame, because it starts with wry humor and ends up as something straight off the Jerry Bruckheimer action-movie assembly line, including a sequence with Nobuo facing off against what looks like most of Japan’s army. If you enjoy watching stuff being blown up, it’s amusing, but for me the story never lives up to the promise of its opening scenes, and the ending is flat-out stupid. There’s no arguing with the production design, though: it’s a great showcase for Ōtomo’s perpetual fetish for machinery, vehicles, massively detailed landscapes and scenes of cataclysmic destruction.
The final segment, “Cannon Fodder”, is meant to be haunting and grim, and it works beautifully. In a giant, walled city of crumbling technology and vaguely Soviet Russian architecture, the ogreish inhabitants live in a state of perpetual readiness for war, every rooftop bristling with cannon All the pleasures of life are being gradually whittled down, money is tight, and everything is either broken or ugly or both. Even classes in school have been all reorganized around principles of warfare; a geometry lesson is now nothing more than a way to calculate how to shell someone at a distance. (The composition of the gunpowder? That’s in chemistry.)
One morning a young boy accompanies his father on his daily rounds to go to one of the many gigantic mortars that dot the city’s perimeter, along with thousands of other gas-mask-clad “soldiers.” The enemy they have fought has long since disappeared — they are shelling nothing but wasteland — but they still go through the motions of fighting with great ritual and pomp. This segment does a better job of satirizing the military mindset then “Bomb”, and ties into the anthology’s theme better, too. Nothing remains of the enemy except for the city inhabitants’ memory of same, and all they now know how to do is make war against something that no longer exists. When the boy asks “Who are we fighting?”, his father ducks the question, since he himself doesn’t know either.
Of the three segments, “Fodder” one has the most outstanding design; it’s strongly reminiscent of the illustrations of Maurice Sendak, and there are many moments that call to mind other SF dystopias like Metropolis (i.e., the shots of the squaddies marching along in unison, heads bowed and shoulders stooped). I also liked how the haunted, hollowed eyes of the characters are used to fine emotional purpose. Ōtomo tends to favor realistic character designs (most notable in the first two segments), but the imagery in “Fodder” is stylized so that it can become more effective, not less.
Memories works best as an anthology of approaches and animation styles rather than as a conceptual trilogy. I liked the way each of the segments looked in its own way — the lush “Rose” looks the way it does for reasons totally unlike the grotty “Fodder”, and they both succeed at being absorbing for other reasons. “Bomb”’s story may be a washout, but nobody can blow up the scenery like Ōtomo. It’s just that he’s better at other things, as the other episodes in this trilogy prove.